Healing the nation's dietary woes, one kid at a time

  • Medill News Service
  • May 22, 2007 @ 10:06 AM
Like most parents, Diane Amayo, a lunchroom aide at Louisa May Alcott School is challenged by a picky eater.

"My 10-year-old won't eat most fruits or vegetables," she said. "It's sometimes a struggle."

As a lunchroom aide at her kids' school, at 2625 N. Orchard St., Amayo witnessed firsthand that her son's aversion to healthy food was not unique.

"A lot of kids that age are afraid of healthy foods," she said.

While Amayo knows most children's eating habits improve eventually, she had no idea how much help the school could be along the way. 

Since 2005, Alcott and two other schools, McCorkle, 4421 S. State St., and Hammond, 2819 W. 21st St., have adopted the Organic School Project, or OSP, a non-profit program founded by Greg Christian, a professional chef with over 20 years of experience.

"It's a project to demonstrate how to heal the food system and how we feed kids in Chicago and America," Christian said.

More than 100 Chicago-area educators, dieticians, farmers, gardeners, food suppliers, chefs and health care professionals -- and some from across the country -- are involved in OSP's interactive school programs on nutrition education and healthy eating.

"What we teach in Organic School Project is a 'grow, teach, feed,' model," Christian said. "We do monthly nutrition education programs with dieticians. We also have gardens in the three schools so the kids can understand how to reconnect with Mother Earth and learn to eat new, more positive foods."

Positive food, according to Christian, includes fruits and vegetables that are organically grown, picked and washed, and not processed or manufactured.

OSP teaches the children how to plant and harvest fruits and vegetables, including tomatoes and carrots, in their school gardens. This food then gets incorporated into the school lunches.

In February, Chartwells-Thompson Hospitality, a food service provider for the Chicago Public Schools, partnered with OSP to integrate more organic and chemical-free foods in the pilot-school cafeterias. 

"This program is truly unique within the public school system," said Josephine Lauer Washuk, director of logistics for the project. "Prior to this announcement, no non-profit organization has ever received a contract from a worldwide service contractor [such as Chartwells-Thompson] to provide food within the public schools."

The contract enables OSP to continue its teaching programs in nutrition education, gardening and sustainable living practices.

In April, Alcott became the first of the three schools to receive an all-organic menu in its lunchroom. It is also the first Chicago Public School to serve fresh and healthy organic food each day on site.

"Our nutritious menus give children the opportunity to develop healthy eating habits for the rest of their lives by being more conscious of what they eat, which will hopefully be carried over into their homes with their families," says Jennifer Malchow, a registered dietitian with Chartwells - Thompson.

OSP works with three vendors to supply the food - Goodness Greenness organic produce, United Natural Food Inc. and Ruprecht hormone-free meats and proteins. Foodservice Professionals is also a partner in the program.

Since the school began serving an all-organic menu, the changes have been noticeable to faculty, students and parents. 

"The parents are totally pumped up about it," Christian said. "They thank me for how good the school smells. Twelve more teachers out of 30 at Alcott are now eating the school's food.

"Half the kids love the food and half the kids are working up to loving the food."

Christian said OSP's teachings are intended to continue outside the classroom as they become a lifestyle change for the child and family. 

"The final component of OSP is mindfulness - teaching them how to monitor themselves and to relax themselves.  They don't know how to do that anymore, mostly," he said.

"In the old days, it was go out and play, and you learned how to monitor yourself, and now with all the electronics happening, they have a hard time monitoring themselves."

OSP plans to introduce all-organic menus to McCorkle School this September   and Hammond in January 2008.

OSP is developing a guide for sustaining the project in the pilot schools that can be adapted in other school systems.